Mosaic Films’ Managing Director Andy Glynne has pioneered the use of animation in documentary, winning a BAFTA, among other awards, for his short film series on mental health, Animated Minds. For his latest offering, Seeking Refuge, Andy uses animation to tell the stories of young refugees. Here he tells us why…
I first thought of using animation when I was making documentaries about mental health.
Mental health is very much a subjective experience. To try and convey that through talking heads gives no sense whatsoever what it’s like. My background is as a psychologist; I used to sit with patients who were talking about their difficulties and there’s a struggle to convey what it’s like, but with symbols or metaphors, you can give them another way to express themselves.
As I started getting into animated docs, I came up with a manifesto of when you should [use animation] and when you shouldn’t. Absolutely [you should] when you’re protecting anonymity, when you’re trying to convey internal experiences and when metaphor is better than literal interpretation: if someone’s being tortured and they’re describing what the feeling’s like, for example. There’s a big trend for people to just use animation because they like the idea of having animation in films and I think it’s a waste of money when that happens.
About two and a half years ago I became interested in the plight of refugees. In some ways that was a response to the tabloid culture, which says that all immigrants are leaches off society. I knew that not to be true. We probably spoke to about 60 or 70 kids. We rang schools and NGOs, such as the Refugee Council, the Children’s Society and Freedom from Torture, and we cast the net wide across the UK. The final selection criteria were: can they articulate their experience in a meaningful way and can they talk in a way that lends itself to visual metaphor?
I would spend anywhere between half an hour and 90 minutes chatting with them, then go away and cut a three- or four–minute version [from the recording]. Before we even started on the animation, we sent it back to the kids and asked if they were happy with it. [As we made the films] we would ring up the kids with questions. We were on the phone a lot making sure that they were OK with any editorial decisions or factual accuracy.
If you’re thinking of making an animated doc, make sure there’s a justified reason for using animation. Does [your subjects’] anonymity need protecting? Does animation add more of a sense of understanding to their specific situation? Can you tell the story better through animation? If the answers to those are no, then don’t do it just because you think it looks cool. You can make beautiful, amazing pictures, but unless the story’s compelling, it’s not going to work. I would rather see a great story with crude animation than sophisticated animation based on a weak story. Story always comes first.
In Focus: storyboarding for animated documentary
It’s an incredibly onerous responsibility ethically: you’re taking someone’s heartfelt story and you’re going to put it into pictures that in some ways aren’t representative of what they look like or what their world is like. Spend a lot of time with the people you’re making the animation around and make sure you’re getting your research right. So if it’s in Eritrea, learn about Eritrea, about where they lived, what kind of house [they had] and what the music was like – to make sure you’re factually accurate but also so that visually you’re building a comprehensive sense of the place, the time, and what it felt like.
Storyboarding has two elements – one is what’s going to happen in each scene, which is usually just roughly sketched, and the other is character drawings or style frames – what the background or character is going to look like. We spent a lot of time on this: [the character for] Ali from Afghanistan went through 10 different designs!
Andy Glynne was talking to Rachel Segal Hamilton.
Images courtesy of Mosaic Films.
Seeking Refuge will be broadcast on BBC 2's Learning Zone on Tuesday 19 June, 4am, and then available via www.bbc.co.uk/learningzone/clips/.
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